PRAIRIE DOGS ON THE MOVE
Text by Nancy Marano and photos by Yvonne Boudreaux
Rescued prairie dogs waiting for transport to their new home on
the Winder ranch in Corona, NM.
Life in the burrow is busy. Each day brims with foraging, racing through the underground apartments, visiting, chattering, kissing and grooming, sounding the “jump-yip” alarm cry at any perceived predator, and digging burrow extensions. If you watch a prairie dog colony for very long, it’s easy to be mesmerized by their almost human antics.
Once these guardians of the grasslands numbered in the billions – at least 5 billion by some estimates – in the short- and mixed-grass prairies that stretched from Mexico to Canada in the western United States. Now, after years of poisoning, sport shooting, and other disturbances, prairie dog populations and habitat have been reduced by 98 percent, and the little animals are becoming endangered. The Utah Prairie Dog and the Mexican Prairie Dog have already made the threatened or endangered species list. The Black-tailed Prairie Dog, the White-tailed Prairie Dog, and the Gunnison’s Prairie Dog are still viable species, but could easily slip onto the endangered list if common extermination practices continue.
In an area where prairie dogs are seen by most as pests and varmints worthy of elimination, an unusual scene took place at Albuquerque’s Kennedy Middle School one sunny April morning.
Prairie dog rescuers with the pet carriers used to transport the animals.
A high-pressure hose attached to a water truck pumped a mixture of water and mild soap suds into the prairie dog burrows that run under the athletic field. About 30 people, including Mayor Martin Chavez, moved from burrow entrance to burrow entrance waiting for the small, soapy prairie dogs to emerge.
As the soap suds began to sting their eyes, the prairie dogs moved toward an entrance where Paula Martin, a biologist and environmental scientist, waited to scoop them up. She pulled the first prairie dog from the burrow, toweled it off, put saline solution in its eyes, and popped it into a waiting pet carrier filled with grass and hay. By the end of the morning, prairie dogs, separated by family groups, were resting in the carriers.
“We observe them for several days before catching them to see which families are in which burrows so they can be moved together in the same carriers. It is important to keep families together so that they don’t feud,” Martin said.
Prairie dogs are very social animals who live in matriarchal family groups known as coteries. Each coterie consists of one adult male and several adult females as well as any offspring less than two years old. At two years of age the males leave the coterie to form their own stables.
Females are fertile only five hours a year with the breeding season in early spring. A female must be two years old to breed and usually has a litter of three to five pups. These pups have about a 25 percent survival rate. Approximately half of the colony has pups in any one year.
Shovels are an important element tool in prairie dog rescue.
Prairie dogs have a very complex language system. Some believe it is one of the most sophisticated languages used by any animal. Prairie dogs have more than 120 “words” to describe various conditions around their towns, according to studies done by professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University. Other research demonstrates that they speak in sentences. Their alarm calls reflect the differentiation they make among predators and may be as specific as “the man with the green shirt carrying a gun is here.” They also have long memories, giving the exact same call for a specific hazard several months later.
Martin is serious when she says, “Prairie dogs are the most important mammal on earth. They are the keystone species for 150 other species.”
The “keystone species” designation means that their presence plays a significant role in keeping the prairie grassland ecosystem functioning correctly. Without them the entire ecosystem becomes vulnerable. Prairie dogs fulfill this designation in several ways. Their burrows offer shelter to many other species, including burrowing owls, salamanders, snakes and a variety of insects. The prairie dogs serve as a major source of food for predators such as hawks, bobcats, coyotes and badgers, while prairie dog towns attract a number of species because of the availability of food in the area.
Linda Leary holding tubing and pot used in the relocation burrow. The tubing gives the prairie dogs a front and back entrance in their new home.
Animals whose fates are most closely linked to that of the prairie dog are the black-footed ferret, burrowing owl, mountain plover, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, swift fox, horned lark, deer mouse, and grasshopper mouse. The black-footed ferret depends almost entirely on prairie dogs for food. Black-footed ferrets are now an endangered species because of the declining prairie dog population.
Contrary to popular opinion, prairie dogs are good for the soil. Their burrows aerate the soil and increase oxygen. Prairie dogs eat grass and roots, thus changing the environment, but the grass that grows back is more nutritious and plentiful than it was before, which helps grazing animals like bison, pronghorn sheep, cattle, horses and deer receive a more nutritious diet. The burrows also help water seep into the dry prairie soil instead of simply running off.
Ed Urbanski and Paula Martin placing some of the prairie dogs' favorite food under the cage cap.
Martin says, “Within one week of putting prairie dogs back into a location, things begin to happen to the environment. Predators return and animals that co-habit the burrows return. You can see the difference. Within two months the burrowing owls are back. With concentrated effort we could have a modern grassland wilderness. There’s no doubt we could achieve that goal in protected areas.”
In a serendipitous encounter, Martin, who has worked with prairie dogs for over a decade, was giving a talk for Prairie Dog Pals when several poisoned prairie dogs were found in a city park. After talking with city officials, she was given the chance to relocate or humanely manage the city’s prairie dogs. While networking to find a suitable new habitat for them, she met Jim Winder and learned that their goals were the same.
Jim Winder, a fourth-generation New Mexico rancher, believes that endangered species are assets, not threats. “I can’t think of any one thing that brings more biodiversity in its wake than the prairie dog,” Winder said. “I was presented a volume of information about the importance of the prairie dog to the ecosystem. It convinced me to try putting them back on the land.”
Paula Martin and Ed Urbanski moving a reluctant new resident into a burrow.
Winder is relocating Albuquerque’s Gunnison’s Prairie Dogs on his ranch near Corona, New Mexico, where they were once a native species. “I see it as trying to correct the mistake we made of killing them in the first place,” Winder explained. “We will study the impact of prairie dog reintroduction on ranches and the effect that prairie dogs have on small trees. We’ve relocated them in an area with juniper trees.” Forty prairie dogs have been relocated so far, but Winder hopes to have an established colony of 100 on the property.
“Catching the prairie dogs is the easy part. Relocation is back breaking and very labor intensive,” said Martin.
The release site is prepared by auguring out starter burrows, which then can be used as artificial burrows. Tubing and underground cages are placed in this burrow to contain the animals temporarily. Underground and above-ground barriers are used to discourage ground predators. A prairie dog is dusted with flea powder and placed by hand into the artificial burrow with one family group in each burrow. Once all the prairie dogs are released into the burrows, an above ground cage cap is attached to the tubing to contain the animals. Favorite foods are placed in the burrow with the prairie dogs. The animals remain in these structures for up to a week while daily feeding is conducted. At the appropriate time, the cage caps are removed from the artificial burrows. Two days of intensive monitoring follow to make sure the prairie dogs are digging their own burrows within the accepted release area.
“They usually dig their new burrows right there because they feel safe,” said Martin. “They don’t sound an alarm call at first because they don’t know what predators will be there.”
According to Martin, the key to a successful relocation is an understanding of the prairie dog family structure that allows you to put families together. Martin says her company, Prairie Ecosystems Associates, guarantees a minimal 95 percent removal rate, 100 percent survival rate while the prairie dogs are in their care and a 90-95 percent survival rate upon release.
The City of Albuquerque has been foresighted in humanely managing and relocating their prairie dogs. By doing so, they’ve created a win-win situation that is good for the city and good for the prairie dogs. Kirtland Air Force Base, however, is a different story. Despite many discussions among representatives from the city, Prairie Dog Pals and Prairie Ecosystems Associates on how the base’s prairie dog population could be humanely removed, Kirtland continues to poison them. According to Martin, “…the base has attracted attention for years because they have a relatively extensive Gunnison’s Prairie Dog and Burrowing Owl population.”
Albuquerque wants to be a model for other cities on how to manage prairie dogs humanely. One can hope that many others, including the United States Air Force, will embrace Albuquerque’s progressive approach.
Prairie dogs are a vital part of the ecosystem in which we live. Without help from committed individuals we run the risk of losing one more irreplaceable species. But it isn’t just the prairie dogs that will be lost. The other species whose survival depends on the prairie dog will be lost as well. To remove one piece from the ecological puzzle is to doom many other pieces.
Ed Urbanski and Paula Martin with some of the equipment used to trap and release prairie dogs.
Rather than placing one species after another on the endangered or protected list, wouldn’t it be better to follow the example of Jim Winder and the City of Albuquerque? Allow the ecosystems to remain the way they were meant to be and actively work to maintain them. By doing this before it is too late, human beings will benefit from the increased biodiversity of the land around them, and perhaps the prairie dogs will remain in our midst, digging their burrows, kissing relatives and bringing joy back to the prairie.
If you want to help save prairie dogs, contact Prairie Dog Pals-Albuquerque at (505) 296-1937 and volunteer. You are a part of the solution.
PRAIRIE DOGS ON THE MOVE
While this article focuses on prairie dog relocation, there are other events happening in New Mexico that affect prairie dogs.
* Wild Friends, a network of students and teachers from 23 schools throughout New Mexico who work for wildlife conservation through the legislative process, sponsored a memorial to the state legislature.
The memorial’s objectives were to encourage various groups dealing with prairie dog issues to develop a conservation management plan for prairie dogs, to request that a legislative committee make recommendations for funding options for the 2004 species survey, and to consider the creation of a grasslands coordinator position at an appropriate state agency.
(Contact Wild Friends at: Center for Wildlife Law at the UNM School of Law, (505) 277-5089, www.wildfriends.org)
*New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science - Staff is documenting the prairie dog relocations for future use in educational programming.
Nancy Marano is an award-winning writer who lives in Albuquerque and is owned by two cats, Sammy and Rocky, and a Westie named Maggie May.
We cannot have peace among men whose hearts find delight in killing any living creature. –Rachel Carson
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